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N.H. evangelicals ‘energized’ for primaries

CONCORD, N.H. (BP) — When evangelist Franklin Graham held an outdoor rally last month at the New Hampshire state capitol encouraging Christians to live out their faith at the ballot box, organizers hoped 300 people would attend. But 1,500 showed up on the capitol steps in Concord despite sub-zero temperatures.

Rich Clegg, director of missions for the New Hampshire Baptist Association, believes the high attendance was symptomatic of an “energized” evangelical electorate in the Granite State that could turn out for Tuesday’s presidential primaries in greater numbers than anticipated.

Believers “that have never really been involved before [in the political process] have gone out of their way to go to several candidate events and to research the issues,” Clegg, who also serves as pastor of Faith Bridge Church in Manchester, N.H., told Baptist Press. “There’s been a different level of energy than I’ve seen in previous election cycles, especially amongst the Christian circle.”

Evangelicals constitute only 3-6 percent of the population in New Hampshire, depending on how “evangelical” is defined. Yet if political enthusiasm among the state’s evangelicals is similar to that among their counterparts in Iowa, they could exert a disproportionate influence on the election — particularly on the Republican side. Though 25 percent of Iowa’s population is evangelical, according to Breitbart.com, The Washington Post reported 64 percent of GOP caucus goers last week were evangelical.

At a Feb. 7 Super Bowl party Clegg attended, there seemed to be “more talk about the primaries than there was about the game,” he said. “There’s a heightened sense of involvement here and prayerfully considering who would potentially make the best next president.”

In the Democratic race, the Real Clear Politics New Hampshire polling average for Feb. 2-7 showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with a 13-point lead over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Among Republicans, businessman Donald Trump led Florida Sen. Marco Rubio by 17 points with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz 1.6 points behind Rubio.

Relatively few polls, however, have been conducted since the Feb. 4 Democratic presidential debate and the Feb. 6 Republican presidential debate.

Many of New Hampshire’s 3,000 Southern Baptists would identify themselves as Republican, though some self-identify as Democrats or Libertarians, according to Sean Simonton, a North American Mission Board church planting catalyst in New Hampshire.

Rubio and Cruz seem to have the highest levels of support among the evangelicals Simonton knows, he told BP, adding many have said they are impressed with the stands of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty. There is “a little bit of interest” in Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Cruz and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Clegg said, “have had fairly active outreach to the faith community.”

Terry Dorsett, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, told BP that reports of Trump support among New Hampshire evangelicals may be exaggerated.

“The news media keeps telling us that evangelicals are for Trump,” Dorsett said. “But I actually only know one person in New England who I would consider evangelical who likes Trump.” The vast majority that he knows like Cruz or Rubio, with some supporting Carson, he said.

One difference between presidential campaigns in New Hampshire and the South, Dorsett said, is that a candidate’s being “extremely outspoken” on social issues in the Granite State could turn off some Granite State voters because most — even in the GOP — don’t tend to include social issues in their calculations of which candidate to support. He noted New Hampshire is the second least religious state in America, according to some measures.

Addressing public-square issues like abortion and same-sex marriage presents challenges for pastors seeking to apply biblical teaching on these subjects “because a huge portion of their congregation would not necessarily agree with the pastor’s viewpoint on those kinds of issues,” Dorsett said.

“They’re definitely going to teach the truth and preach the Word and bring it up as it’s appropriate,” Dorsett continued. But political engagement “is probably not something they’re going to be extremely active in because it’s not always conducive to church growth.”

Despite the challenges of Christian political engagement in New Hampshire, Clegg of the New Hampshire Association believes “we’ll see more Christians going out to vote this primary season than we’re told we’ve had before.”

Historically, the church has played a “restraining” role in the culture, Clegg said, “being that moral compass and that voice that brings clarity and truth. I think the church is starting to regain that call.”

Based on observations from Facebook, Simonton said Granite State believers seem to be “shifting back and forth over the past few months in who’s getting their support. So it will be interesting to watch” the primaries.